At 14, I bought a microcassette recorder to record touch and signalling tones. Turned out to be a lot more amusing to record my adventures with Doz (we called him Brando, then). We made so many tapes. Miles of songs, jokes, sketches and music. Our friendship set in rust.
Around 1999, Doz got a MiniDisc recorder. An MZ-R37. It was a glorious thing. Sleek, digital, optical. We mic’d our exploits, friends, bands, bus stops.
It felt like anything could be valuable. So we recorded us.
Usually with a joke in mind.
We graduated and I spent my first memorable year away from him. Got my own recorder. I was exploring new environments, new phone systems, new friends and old tunnels.
I documented everything with a scratchy microphone stuck to my collar, and the peculiar scrape of MiniDisc recording in my pocket. I think I had an R90, then. Later, a Sharp MS722. Note the giant Motorola on my belt.
Some five years later I moved to Russia and recorded hours of teaching class. Phreaky sounds of the crossbar telephone system in Obninsk. Trains, busted elevators, conversations with Ksiu. A lot of empty hallway sounds, for some reason. Think I just liked the echo.
Yeah, I really invested in MiniDisc, even though I knew Sony was a shit company. You see, the problem with MiniDisc, fundamentally, was that it recorded digitally, but you could never get the sounds back out digitally. Recordings were pristine and alive – and you took the damned audio cable out, plugged the MD into your computer’s crappy line-in, and re-recorded the whole thing into a .wav file. In other words, if you recorded an hour, you needed to record for another hour to make use of it. Schizophrenic Sony’s music division did not have the vision of its hardware division, and they took that capability away. Their right to publish MD trumped my right to use my own recordings. Trumped my pocket slice of the skip-proof magneto-optical future. Pained a lot of folks.
After fully ten years of losing market share to CD and MP3, MiniDisc finally died. But Sony, with uncharacteristic charity, gave Minidisc lovers one final gift. The MZ-RH1. $399 MSRP.
This was the machine we’d all been dreaming of. It didn’t do grating things like forgetting your recording levels every time you turned it off. And it read every MiniDisc format, ever – even stepchild NetMD. And it let you upload them to your computer, digitally, with no generational loss. It would have been perfect, except that Sony made it dependent on the ugliest, shittiest user-hating software you’ve ever met. SonicStage. Sony must know this, too, because they don’t even let you download it anymore. You have to get it from filesharing sites and use user-modified files to get it installed and working.
So I never bought an RH1. I was a grad student in a program paying poverty wages and I set field recording aside. My MiniDiscs got their shelf wear goin’. Sony stopped makin’ em. I didn’t care. Five year old recordings got older. The building shit itself.
Well, I care now. I have cash to resurrect the past. Seemed that five years on, an RH1 should be about a hundred bucks on eBay. Well, they’re not – working RH1’s go for more like $500 to $1000. Unbelievably, the format’s dark patterns actually made it appreciate. So I watched them on eBay and Craigslist for over a year until I managed to snipe a couple at a good price. One came in a mini-cooler full of cat hair. Thank you, Craigslist.
Then the fun began. First, I had to locate each and every MD I’d ever recorded – and a few that others had recorded. Then, I had to figure out what they contained. The librarian in me decided to number the discs sequentially from 1 through 80. The cataloger in me decided to listen to each one on fast-forward, and to write the content on the outside of each disc with a marker. The lazy bastard in me decided to line them all up and take a very high resolution picture of the set, so I could refer back to each disc.
Searching through each disc turned out to be as emotional and inspiring as it was brutal and frustrating. It took a whole day, from beginning to end, to hear them all. As it turns out, I don’t like my Old Self (or Young Self, really) nearly as much as I like my Now Self. While pictures lend themselves to great stories years after the snap, recordings of exactly what I said ten years ago mostly just make me bothered with me. They also make me miss all the dead folks and the old ghosts – Josh Nordwall in particular. Elijah Nies. People I just can’t find anymore. Goodbye, Josh. I can finally hear you now.
The good thing about this became obvious only after going through dozens of discs. I’m not some football player staring wistfully at trophies from my halcyon days; I’m a developing human, hacker, and maker who’s better than he once was. If I liked my old self better, that’d be backwards. Extraordinary people were a part of this, even if they didn’t last long.
Speaking of backwards, I had a hell of a time getting useful stuff out of these MDs. SonicStage, the digitizing package, names all the files according to the CURRENT date – not when they were created (which probably wasn’t stored on the disc). While it has the capability to convert the ATRAC *.oma files into .wavs, it just dumps them in a folder OUTSIDE the named and dated folder it created for the OMAs.
Ultimately, I named each folder according to the following scheme:
Given an estimate of 6-10 minutes per disc digitizing time, I thought I could finish this project in a day or a weekend. As it turned out, it required about a week of on-and-off digitizing plus a couple full days of thinking, hearing, labeling, and remembering. Overall, it was worth the work, and I am very glad to be binding these MDs up in plastic for long-term storage. To never use another deliberately crippled piece of shit to capture people that I love.
They’re in a sealed storage case with dessicant and I hope to never open them again.
What emerged from this effort was the intrinsic cruelty of perfect memory. When Josh died, he forgot our conversations. Time edited the soundtrack in my mind, and we became less combative, headstrong, and bold. More loving and less specific. But there on the disc were a few hours of unedited exactly-what-happened. And while they were all small transgressions I learned that I don’t necessarily want everything captured. Particularly the small things. Especially with 100%, instantaneous, perfect recall. Pettiness, I think, is best left to dust.
<small>Postscript: I take great joy in starting new things and recording new data. However, this joy is also a burden. I have dozens of mostly-finished projects pressing. The last 5-6 months of this year are going to be spent on Finishing Things. This is the first thing I’ve Finished in a while. Feels great. Next…</small>